Murder in China: Suspect Fakes Muteness Before Actually Losing Ability to Speak

Chinese paramilitary police officers walk in formation. Reuters

A Chinese murder suspect evaded the police for 12 years by pretending to be mute but eventually lost his voice from lack of use, according to Chinese news sources.

The suspect, who is known only by the last name Zeng, was accused of murdering his uncle-in-law in 2005 over a rent dispute of about $76. The argument became violent and Zeng ended up stabbing his wife's uncle, known as Mr. Chai, to death.

Zeng went on the lam and took on the false identity of Wang Gui. He also pretended he was mute to throw off anyone who may have had suspicions about his true identity. Eventually, Zeng settled about 450 miles north of his original home in Hangzhou and became a construction worker in the Anhui province.

Zeng was introduced to a woman through his boss and remarried, the couple even had a child together. All the while he kept mum and pretended he didn't have the ability to speak.

All went well for 12 years, and Zeng eased into his new identity as a quiet family man, until police started conducting household surveys in his village. They discovered Zeng had no official paperwork and took him in for DNA work to find out who he was. The results were a match for the murderer of Mr. Chai and Zeng was detained.

Police reported that even when Zeng's true identity was revealed he was unable to speak, as his vocal cords had atrophied after more than a decade of nonuse. Zeng communicated with officials by writing notes to them. When they asked why he never spoke he replied, "The less I say, the less chance I'll make a mistake."

Vocal cords are technically muscles, and so it is possible that they would atrophy after an extended period of nonuse, according to Dr. Anil K. Lalwani, an Otolaryngologist at Columbia University. The good news is that with physical therapy Zeng should be able to one day speak again. "Because they would still be innervated by a nerve, they should be able to recover down the road, because the muscle would not be completely atrophied," said Lalwani.

It seems unlikely, however, that the Chinese government would supply an accused murderer with that kind of medical treatment.

The maximum sentence for murder is the death penalty and while the country doesn't release official numbers, humans rights groups believe thousands of convicted criminals are killed each year in the country.